Letters from the Lost wins Alberta Readers’ Choice Award

June 15 2011

The moving story behind this award-winning AU Press book.

Helen Waldstein Wilkes, author of Letters from the Lost, at a recent book signing. Photo courtesy of AU Press.

AU Press book Letters from the Lost won the Alberta Readers' Choice Award on June 11. This is the story of how the book came to be.

Helen Waldstein Wilkes was 60 when she was reunited with a family she didn't remember -- a family who lived the last chapter of their lives in unthinkable circumstances.

Helen and her parents immigrated to Canada from Czechoslovakia in April 1939, just before the Second World War. That the Waldsteins, a Jewish family, received permission to leave Czechoslovakia is a miracle. According to Helen's father, they may have been the last Jewish family to receive an exit stamp in Prague.

Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents... Most were never able to escape Europe. Instead, they sent letters to Helen's parents for as long as they could. As a child, Helen was sheltered from the contents of these letters. It wasn't until she turned 60 that she decided to read the letters.

"I knew abstractly who these people were," she says, "because when I was a child, my mother would sometimes leaf through her precious photo album and say, ‘This is your aunt, and this is your grandmother,' and so on... But I had nothing to flesh them out with.

"Once I read the letters, human beings came to life for me... I saw them as living, breathing, three-dimensional [people], and to me, they were crying out, ‘Give us life. Tell the world we existed.'"

Initially, Helen wanted to publish the letters on their own. But when she took a creative non-fiction class, she was advised that her family's story would be more interesting if she wrote herself into it. She ended up interlacing the letters among a memoir of her life, and the result is AU Press book Letters from the Lost: A Memoir of Discovery.

"I never dreamt my book would get into the hands of the general public," she says, explaining that originally she had envisioned her main audience would be academics.

"I was thrilled when I saw stacks of my book [in a bookstore] and realized people were reading them... that people were responding to the book as I had hoped they might.

"I think no writer can ever dream for anything better than an audience that gets what the author is trying to say."

In the case of Letters from the Lost, Helen hopes her audience is reminded of the adage coined by philosopher George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

And in remembering her own past, Helen has found that her present has been profoundly changed.
"I have a completely different sense of who I am and of what matters in life, and what is trivial and irrelevant and not worth spending time on or getting upset about... [This book] really has opened a whole new chapter of my life."

By Erin Ottosen